When Jim Daniel Dannerman heard the WHEEP-wawp of the police sirens, he was on the way from his family lawyer’s office to his cousin’s observatory to beg for a job. The sirens gave him a moment’s confusion, so that for the blink of an eye he could not remember which one he was going to see, the autocratic career woman who was the head of the Dannerman Astrophysical Observatory or the five-year-old girl who had peed her pants in the tree house on his uncle’s estate. He was also already en route to the eschaton, though, to be sure, with a weary long way still to go. He didn’t know that was true yet, of course. He had never heard of the eschaton then, and after the first moment he didn’t pay much attention to the sirens, either. City people didn’t. Cop chases were a normal part of the urban acoustic environment, and anyway Dannerman was busy accessing information that might come in handy on his new assignment. He had been listening to the specs of the Starcophagus, the abandoned astronomical satellite that had suddenly seemed to become important to the Bureau, when the shriek of the stop-all-traffic alarm drowned everything else out. Every light turned red, and he was thrown forward as the taxi driver slammed on the brakes.
Every other vehicle at that intersection was doing the same thing, because the ugly stop-all enforcer spikes were already thrusting up out of the roadway. In the front of the cab his driver cursed and pounded the wheel. “Goddam cops! Goddam spikes! Listen, they blow one more set of tires on me and I swear to God I’m gonna get rid of this crappy little peashooter I been carrying and get me a real gun. And then I’m gonna take that gun and—”
Dannerman stopped listening before she got to the ways in which she was going to take the city’s police system on single-handed. He was watching the drama being played out at the intersection. The car that was being pursued had tried to make it through the intersection in spite of the spikes, and naturally every tire had been stabbed flat; the three youths inside had spilled out and tried to get away on foot, dodging among the jam of stalled vehicles. They weren’t going to make it, though. Police were coming at them on foot from all directions. The running cops were weighed down by radio, sting-stick, crowd-control tear-gas gun, assault gun and body armor, but there were too many of them for the criminals. The police had the kids well surrounded. Dannerman watched the fugitives being captured with mild professional interest—after all, he was in the law-enforcement business himself, sort of.
His driver perked up a little. “Looks like they got ’em. Listen, mister, I’m sorry about the delay, but they’ll have the spikes down again any minute now—”
Dannerman said, “No problem. I’ve got time before my appointment.”
It didn’t placate her. “Sure, you’ve got time, but what about me? I’m stuck trying to make a goddam living in this goddam town—”
The thing was, she had one of those Seven Stupid Alien figures hanging from her rearview mirror and it was singing out of its picochip the whole time she was talking, a shrill obbligato behind her hoarse complaints. That wasn’t particularly odd. There were pictures of the aliens all over the place. On the kids being arrested, belly-down on the pavement: the backs of their jackets displayed little cartoon figures of the alien they called Sneezy-gang colors, those were; but even his lawyer’s secretary had had a coffee mug in the shape of another on her desk. The taxi driver’s singing good-luck piece was the fat one named Sleepy, for its half-closed eyes—well, there were three of the eyes, actually, on a head that was maned like a lion’s. It wasn’t much like the ancient Disney original, but then neither were the secretary’s Doc or the gangbangers’ Sneezy.
It was an odd thing, when you thought about it, that the hideous space aliens had become children’s toys and everybody’s knickknacks. Colonel Hilda had had an explanation for it. It was like the dinosaurs of a generation or two earlier, she told him on the phone: something so horrible and dangerous that people had to translate it into something cuddly, because otherwise it was too frightening. Then she had gone on to tell him that the space message might, or might not, be relevant to his new assignment, but it wasn’t his job to ask questions about it, it was his job only to close out his assignment to the Carpezzios’ drug ring and get cracking on the new job.
It wasn’t the first time she’d explained all that to him, either, because that was the way it was in the NBI.
That, of course, Dannerman didn’t need to be told. After thirteen years in the National Bureau of Investigation, he knew the drill.
The funny thing was that Dannerman had never set out to be a spook. When the college freshman Jim Daniel Dannerman signed up for the Police Reserve Officers Training Corps he was nineteen years old, and the last thing in his mind was the choice of a career. What he was after was a couple of easy credit hours, while he went about the business of preparing himself for a career in live theater. He hadn’t read the fine print. All the way through his undergraduate program and even in graduate school it had meant nothing but a couple of hours a week in his reserve uniform, plus a few weekends; By the time he did read it—very carefully, this time—it was his last day of graduate school, and he had just received his orders to report for active duty.
By then, of course, it was a lot too late to change his mind. But it hadn’t been a bad life. When you worked for the Bureau you went to interesting places and you got to meet a lot of interesting people. The downside was that sometimes you had a pretty good chance of getting killed by some of those interesting people, but so far he’d been lucky about that.
The other downside was that when you had to go under cover there was always the problem of remembering all the lies about who you were and where you’d been all your life. That was one of the things that made the new assignment look pretty good. As the colonel had explained, the only identity he had to assume was his own. Indeed, the fact that he was a sort of relative of the person under investigation was what made him the best choice for the job.
Dannerman snapped off the portable and leaned back, closing his eyes. He hardly noticed when the traffic jam began to dissolve, because he was working out just what he wanted to say in the interview with his cousin. There wasn’t much doubt that he would get the job he was going to apply for—the lawyer had all but promised that. Dannerman was pretty sure the old man meant it, if only because he had a little bit of a guilty conscience over Dannerman’s lost inheritance. But it would be embarrassing if he was turned down. He was surprised when the taxi stopped. “Here you are, mister,” the driver said, friendlier now when tipping time was near. She pulled the slip with the ten-o’clock fare update out of the meter and handed it to him, peering over his shoulder at the plaque over the building door. “Hey. What’s this T. Cuthbert Dannerman Astrophysical Observatory business? I thought telescopes were, you know, like on the top of a mountain someplace.”
Dannerman glanced at the midtown skyscraper that housed the observatory and grinned at the woman. “Actually,” he said as he paid the bill, “until this morning, so did I.”
* * *
Time was, indeed, when astronomers shared the night with the bats and the burglars, huddling their freezing buns in drafty domes on the tops of snow-clad mountains. If they wanted to peer far into space, they had no choice. That was where the telescopes were. That was time past. In time present the camera had made the all-night vigils unnecessary. The spread of electronic communication and control exempted the astronomers from having even to show up anywhere near their telescopes—and the best of the world’s telescopes, or at least the ones of that kind that were still working, weren’t where they were easy to visit anyway. Like the Star-cophagus, they were in orbit. But wherever the data came from, they arrived—processed, enhanced, computerized, digitalized—at an observatory comfortably located in some civilized place.
Uncle Cubby’s final gift to the world of astronomy occupied the top floors of the building, but of course there were turnstiles and guards between the street door and the elevators. Dannerman presented himself at the lobby desk and announced his name. That drew interest from the guard. “You a relative?” he asked.
“Nephew,” Dannerman admitted. “Mr. Dixler made an appointment for me to see Dr. Adcock.”
“Yes, sir,” the guard said, suddenly deferential. “I’ll have to ask you to wait over there until someone can show you to Dr. Adcock’s office. It’ll just be a moment.”
It wasn’t just a moment, though. Dannerman hadn’t expected that it would be. The observatory’s private elevator doors opened and closed a dozen times before a large, sullen man came out and lumbered over to the holding pen. He was not deferential at all. “You the guy from Dixler, J. D. Dannerman? Show me some ID.” He didn’t offer to shake hands. When he had checked the card he passed Dannerman through the turnstiles and into an elevator, and only then introduced himself. “I’m Mick Jarvas, Dr. Adcock’s personal assistant. Give me your gun.”
Dannerman took his twenty-shot from his shoulder holster and passed it over. “Do I get a receipt?”
The man looked at the weapon with contempt. “I’ll remember where I got it, don’t worry. Who’s this Dixler?”
“Huh. Okay. Wait here. Janice’ll tell you when you can go in.” That ended the conversation, and Dannerman was left to sit in the waiting room. It didn’t bother him. It gave him a chance to see what a modern astrophysical observatory was like. This one wasn’t like the mountaintop domes he remembered from his childhood. It was full of people glimpsed down corridors, elderly men talking to young dark-skinned women in saris, groups drinking Cokes or herbal tea out of the machines, a couple of people sharing the waiting room with him and improving their waiting time by talking business on their pocket phones. What interested him most was the big liquid-crystal screen behind the receptionist’s desk. It was showing a great pearly mural that he recognized as a picture of a galaxy, some galaxy or other; switched to a picture of what he took to be an exploding star; switched again to a huge photograph of an orbiting observatory. He had no trouble recognizing that. It was the one he had been studying on the way over; it was also, he was aware, the gift that had eaten up half of Uncle Cubby’s fortune before he died. The observatory was Starlab—sometime uncharitably called Starcophagus, for the dead astronomer who was still orbiting inside it. Starlab was the ancient, biggest and best—but unfortunately no longer operational—astronomical orbiter of them all.
Dan Dannerman’s only previous experience of an astronomical facility had been when he was four years old and his father had taken him to visit Uncle Cubby in the old optical observatory in Arizona. Starlab was quite different, and all the engineering specs he’d been able to dig out of the databank didn’t make it real for him. Getting up, he strolled over to the reception desk and cleared his throat. “Janice? I mean, I don’t know your last name—”
“Janice is good enough,” she said agreeably. “And you’re Mr. Dannerman.”
“Dan. I noticed you were showing the Starcophagus on the wall a minute ago—” She had begun shaking her head. “Is something wrong?”
“Dr. Adcock doesn’t like us ever to use that word here. It’s the Dannerman Astrophysical Starlab. Mostly we just call it Starlab.”
“Thanks,” he said, meaning it; it was a useful bit of information for someone who was about to ask the boss for a favor.
“It used to be the Dannerman Orbiting Astrolab,” she went on, looking him over, “but Dr. Adcock changed that. Because of, you know, the initials.”
“Oh, right,” he said, nodding. “DOA. I see what you mean. I guess nobody wants to be reminded about the dead guy up there. Anyway, I was wondering if you could fill me in a little bit. I understand, uh, Dr. Adcock’s trying to get a mission flown to reactivate it.”
“There’s talk,” she admitted cautiously.
“Well, when’s that going to happen, do you know?”
“No idea,” she said cheerfully. “You’d have to ask Dr. Adcock about that—wait a minute.” She paused, squinting as she listened to the voice in her earpiece, and paid no further attention to him.
He went back and sat down. Evidently he was to be kept waiting for a while, as was appropriate for someone who wanted to ask a favor. He didn’t mind. It was what he had expected from a cousin-by-marriage he hadn’t seen for years, and wouldn’t be seeing now if the Bureau had not taken a sudden and serious interest in just what the woman was up to.
Copyright © 1996 by Frederik Pohl